By JIM ABRAMS
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted Wednesday not to tamper with the Depression-era program that protects U.S. sugar growers as it sped toward completion of a $500 billion bill to operate farm and food programs over the next five years.
The sugar program, which controls supply levels, sets prices and limits imports, has long been a target of those who say the government supports agribusiness over the interests of consumers.
But in a 53-46 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment to the farm bill that would have reduced the scope of the program, including eliminating a provision of the 2008 farm bill that required the federal government to buy surplus sugar which was then sold to ethanol companies at a loss.
Last week, the Senate by a similar vote also defeated an amendment to phase out the program entirely.
The sugar vote was one of the few remaining contentious issues as the Senate worked through some 73 amendments to the 1,000-page measure that establishes safety nets for farmers, authorizes conservation programs and funds the food stamp program.
A final vote is expected Thursday morning, sending it to the House where it could face an uphill battle. While the Senate bill cuts $23 billion from current spending levels over the next decade, the Republican-led House is likely to seek deeper cuts, particularly to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamps, which costs $80 billion a year and makes up 80 percent of farm bill spending. The current farm act expires at the end of September.
The farm bill makes some substantial changes in farm policy, including eliminating direct payments to farmers even when they don't plant crops, and consolidating conservation programs, but it doesn't touch the federal sugar program, which dates back to 1930s legislation to protect domestic sugar growers and refiners.
The program is opposed by consumer groups and food and beverage associations that use sugar, which claim it drives up prices and forces U.S. confectioners to relocate overseas.
"This is the last opportunity for a bipartisan amendment to reform sugar subsidies that are costing consumers $3.5 billion a year and losing 20,000 jobs a year in this country," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who sponsored the amendment with Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa.
Supporters of the program, which included senators from Northern and Western sugar beet states and Southern sugarcane states, countered that it does not cost taxpayers anything and that consumer sugar prices remain lower than those in other developed countries. Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said current sugar policy supports 142,000 U.S. jobs. "If we're importing cheap sugar at a point where we undermine American jobs, what have we gained?"
Senators also approved two amendments aimed at the crop insurance program, which costs some $10 billion a year and will be at the center of the farm safety net with the elimination of direct payments. One, by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., compels those in the crop insurance program to abide by conservation requirements, just as those now getting direct payments must do.
Failure to make that link, said the National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition and other environmental groups, would lead "to weaker conservation, less resiliency and less long-term food security, and less public support for the farm safety net."
The second amendment, backed by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would reduce by 15 percentage points the premium subsidy for farmers with adjusted gross income of more than $750,000. Durbin said the measure would affect only 1,500 out of 1.5 million farmers and save $1 billion over 10 years. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, top Republican on the Agriculture Committee, urged a no vote, saying it would lead to lower participation in the insurance pool, drive up premiums and create more reliance on ad hoc disaster relief. It passed 66-33.
Earlier on Wednesday the Senate approved an amendment by Coburn that would bar the Agriculture secretary from making conservation payments to millionaires. Another approved amendment by Senate Foreign Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., and the panel's ranking Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana prohibits North Korea from receiving Food for Peace Act donations unless the president issues a national interest waiver.
The U.S. government suspended food assistance to North Korea in 2009. A deal earlier this year to renew that aid fell through after North Korea conducted a rocket launch that the United States said was a test of missile technology.
On Tuesday, supporters of the bill successfully beat back several attempts to make greater cuts in the food stamp program, which has grown to be the second-largest federal welfare program after Medicaid. The program now covers 46 million people, one out of every seven Americans.